Flesh made Word

What happens in great choral performances? How do we write (or think) about music that moves us?

images-1I came across this sparkling account written by someone who should know, a conductor who has trained generations of American choral conductors.

We put in muscle and blood and brains and breath—and out comes holy Spirit. A miracle happens—the Flesh is made Word, and dwells among us.

That’s earthy, religious, even Christian. It’s the great Robert Shaw writing in 1972 about the miracles that occur in superb choral performance. I found it leafing through an issue of Choral Journal (I’ll read anything in waiting rooms).

I find his thoughts strangely arresting. Here he adds some of the technical refinements in vocal production that can culminate in great performances:

At every instance wherein we achieve this exact balance, or that unequivocal intonation, or yea rhythmic meshing, images-4or an absolute precision of enunciation, or an unassailable propriety of vocal color, the miracle happens—the Flesh is made Word, and dwells among us.

A miracle is an upgrading break or disruption of the natural. We’re happy for the break. The natural can also break into a downward spiral. Shaw speaks of an avoidance or diversion of the ‘natural’  upward toward the super-natural – preferable, surely, to a downward slipping diversion:

In every avoidance or diversion of the ‘natural’ (which downgrades so quickly from the ‘familiar’ through the ‘easy’ to the ‘ho-hum’) the super-natural finds a voice.

Diane_LoomerGiving birth to a voice that can discover and convey the supernatural is a convulsive break with ‘the natural.’

In every vocal convulsion some truth is struggling to be born.

Think about it!

** ** **

**Afterthought, digression, confession**

Do you ever read a book back to front, or turn a painting upside down to better grasp its composition? Do you ever read a poem bottom up after trying top down?

I have a confession to make. I’ve tampered with Shaw’s sentence order. Without warning, I’ve given you a bottom up reading. I found it went smoother top bottom if I first rearranged it bottom top. Here is the original:

In every vocal convulsion some truth is struggling to be born. In every avoidance or diversion of the ‘natural’ (which downgrades so quickly from the ‘familiar’ through the ‘easy’ to the ‘ho-hum’) the super-natural finds a voice. At every instance wherein we achieve this exact balance, or that unequivocal intonation, or yea rhythmic meshing, or an absolute precision of enunciation, or an unassailable propriety of vocal color, the miracle happens—the Flesh is made Word, and dwells among us. We put in muscle and blood and brains and breath—and out comes holy Spirit. 

And here, the inversion, non-stop.

We put in muscle and blood and brains and breath—and out comes holy Spirit. A miracle happens—the Flesh is images-1made Word, and dwells among us. It happens at every instance wherein we achieve this exact balance, or that unequivocal intonation, or yea rhythmic meshing, or an absolute precision of enunciation, or an unassailable propriety of vocal color. In every avoidance or diversion of the ‘natural’ (which downgrades so quickly from the ‘familiar’ through the ‘easy’ to the ‘ho-hum’) the super-natural finds a voice. In every vocal convulsion some truth is struggling to be born.

I think something is gained when we read Shaw bottom-up, as well as top-bottom. And I’m not sure much is lost in the bottom up version. In any case, the two readings intensify each other.

What makes such an intelligible inversion even possible? Perhaps his sentences don’t flow in a unique direction toward a conclusion, but rather are modular units that can be assembled in a number of illuminating sequences.

Sometimes I think Emerson writes that way: We can scramble sentence-order within a paragraph without losing much. And perhaps we can scramble paragraph order. If this is even partially true, what does it tell us about this sort of thinking, and the tinkering of the mind or imagination in producing it?

I think scrambling, then rereading both ways, makes Robert Shaw’s words radiant. It helps me hear thought struggling to be born.

—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

Credits:  The quote from Robert Shaw is from an interview with the gifted conductor Robert Russell, in Choral Journal, Sept. 2015. The interviewer, Stan Scott, is a member of the Choral Arts Society of Portland, Maine.  Shaw’s remarks were first published as Concerning Missa Solemnis, May 16, 1972 (location unknown). Thanks once more to Google Images.

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